Art thieves steal fake masterpiece from Italian church in police sting

The Crucifixion or The Calvary 1617 by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

PHAS UIG VIA GETTYThe Crucifixion or The Calvary 1617 by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

The painting, which is considered a masterpiece of Flemish art, is worth in the region of €3 million (NZ$5 million), according to The Guardian.

Italian police switched a 17th century canvas by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Younger - worth around 3million euros (£2.6m) - from a church and replaced it with a fake.

It all happened in the town of Castelnuovo Magra in Liguria, where the painting of the crucifixion is kept in a side alcove of the Santa Maria Maddalena church.

"Rumours began to circulate that someone could steal the work and the carabinieri made a decision to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some surveillance cameras", explained Mayor Daniele Montebello, who helped keep the subterfuge under wraps before and even after the heist.

"We were hearing rumours that someone wanted to steal it, so the Carabinieri (Italy's paramilitary police force) brought in the fake and installed security cameras".

Thieves used a hammer to break into the display case in the local church of Santa Maria Maddalena, making off with what they assumed to be the valuable artwork.

Why is art so expensive?

The town's mayor, Daniele Montebello, who police had informed about the operation, played along with the deception after the robbery, telling the Italian news agency ANSA: "It is a work of inestimable value, a hard blow for our community".

The thieves have not yet been apprehended, but the police are "on their trail", Elisabetta Sacconi, a spokesperson for the mayor's office, told CNN.

Pieter Bruegel the Younger was the son of another Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

"Many tourists also come to Castelnuovo to admire it", she added. The scene is painted in oil on oak panels and is a copy of Brueghel's famous father's work, though, no version of the original has survived.

The original Bruegel, which measures 43cm by 67cm, was stolen from the church almost 40 years ago but later recovered after being found in the home of a convicted criminal who had just been released from jail.

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